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Irish novelist's quest for a perfect Aran


It is hard for me to think about the Aran Islands, the three rugged outposts off the coast of Galway, without dreaming of a perfect pint of Guinness on a drizzling summer afternoon, when all hopes of walking, or cycling, or swimming had been gloriously dampened by the weather, and there was only one place to go, and that was the pub. And from the window you could study the gray sky over the fierce Atlantic ocean, the white wash of the waves breaking in the distance, and somehow the drink in your hand, the beauty of the black and white liquid, the silky softness of its taste, especially if you were on your second or third pint, meant freedom, ease, time you treasured and longed for.

Read more....

I--Colm Tóibín is the author of the novels "Brooklyn" and "The Master."

See also Sean Scully: Walls of Aran with afterword by Colm Toibin

From Deep Ocean, Ugly and Tasty, With a Catch


The answer to the eternal mystery of what makes up a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich turns out to involve an ugly creature from the sunless depths of the oceans, whose bounty, it seems, is not limitless.

The world's insatiable appetite for fish, with its disastrous effects on populations of favorites like red snapper, monkfish and tuna, has driven commercial fleets to deeper waters in search of creatures unlikely to star on the Food Network.

One of the most popular is the hoki, or whiptail, a bug-eyed specimen [not unlike the pollack] found far down in the waters around New Zealand and transformed into a major export. McDonald's alone at one time used roughly 15 million pounds of it each year.

The hoki may be exceedingly unattractive, but when its flesh reaches the consumer it's just fish -- cut into filets and sticks or rolled into sushi -- moist, slightly sweet and very tasty. Better yet, the hoki fishery was thought to be sustainable, providing New Zealand with a reliable major export for years to come.

But arguments over managing this resource are flaring not only between commercial interests and conservationists, but also among the environmental agencies most directly involved in monitoring and regulating the catch.

A lot of money is at stake, as well as questions about the effectiveness of global guidelines meant to limit the effects of industrial fishing.

Without formally acknowledging that hoki are being overfished, New Zealand has slashed the allowable catch in steps, from about 275,000 tons in 2000 and 2001 to about 100,000 tons in 2007 and 2008 -- a decline of nearly two-thirds.

The scientific jury is still out, but critics warn that the hoki fishery is losing its image as a showpiece of oceanic sustainability.

"We have major concerns," said Peter Trott, the fisheries program manager in Australia for the World Wildlife Fund, which closely monitors the New Zealand fishery.

The problems, he said, include population declines, ecosystem damage and the accidental killing of skates and sharks. He added that New Zealand hoki managers let industry "get as much as it can from the resource without alarm bells ringing."

The hoki lives in inky darkness about a half-mile down and grows to more than four feet long, its body ending in a sinuous tail of great length. Large eyes give the fish a startled look.

Scientists say its fate represents a cautionary tale much like that of its heavily harvested forerunner, orange roughy. That deepwater fish reproduces slowly and lives more than 100 years. Around New Zealand, catches fell steeply in the early 1990s under the pressures of industrial fishing, in which factory trawlers work around the clock hauling in huge nets with big winches.

Hoki rose commercially as orange roughy fell. Its shorter life span (up to 25 years) and quicker pace of reproduction seemed to promise sustainable harvests. And its dense spawning aggregations, from June to September, made colossal hauls relatively easy.

As a result, the New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries set very high quotas -- roughly 275,000 tons a year from 1996 to 2001. Dozens of factory trawlers plied the deep waters, and dealers shipped frozen blocks and fillets of the fish around the globe.

Moreover, the fishery won certification in March 2001 from the Marine Stewardship Council, a private fisheries assessment group in London, which called it sustainable and well managed. The group's blue label became a draw for restaurant fish buyers.

"Most Americans have no clue that hoki is often what they're eating in fried-fish sandwiches," SeaFood Business, an industry magazine, reported in April 2001. It said chain restaurants using hoki included McDonald's, Denny's and Long John Silver's.

Ominous signs of overfishing -- mainly drops in hoki spawns -- came soon thereafter. Criticism from ecological groups soared. The stewardship council promotes hoki as sustainable "in spite of falling fish stocks and the annual killing of hundreds of protected seals, albatross and petrels," the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand said in May 2004.

When the stewardship council had to decide whether to recertify the hoki fishery as sustainable and well managed, the World Wildlife Fund, a Washington-based group that helped found the council, was strongly opposed. "The impacts of bottom trawling by the hoki fishery must be reduced," the fund said.

The wildlife fund was overruled, and the council recertified the fishery in October 2007. At the same time, the New Zealand ministry cut the quota still further, reducing the allowable commercial catch from roughly 110,000 tons to about 100,000 tons.

Some restaurants cut back on hoki amid the declines and the controversy.

Last year, Yum Brands, which owns Long John Silver's, issued a corporate responsibility report that cited its purchases of New Zealand hoki as praiseworthy because the fishery was "certified as sustainable."

Now, Ben Golden, a Yum Brands spokesman, said hoki was "not on the menu."

Denny's said it served hoki only in its New Zealand restaurants.

Gary Johnson, McDonald's senior director of global purchasing, said hoki use was down recently to about 11 million pounds annually from roughly 15 million pounds -- a drop of about 25 percent. "It could go up if the quota goes up," he said in an interview. He noted that McDonald's also used other whitefish for its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.

Mr. Johnson called the diminishing quotas a sign not of strain on fish stocks but of good management. "Everything we've seen and heard," he said, "suggests the fishery is starting to come back."

The Ministry of Fisheries agreed. "If you look at the current state of the fishery, it's apparent that the string of management actions that we've taken, which came at severe economic impact, have been effective," said Aoife Martin, manager of deepwater fisheries.

But the Blue Ocean Institute, a conservation group in East Norwich, N.Y., that scores seafood for ecological impact on a scale from green to red, still gives New Zealand hoki an unfavorable orange rating. The fish is less abundant over all, the group says, and the fishery "takes significant quantities of seabirds and fur seals."

Mr. Trott of the wildlife fund was more pointed. He called the fishery's management "driven by short-term gains at the expense of long-term rewards" -- a characterization the ministry strongly rejects.

But he, too, held out the prospect of a turnaround that would raise the hoki's abundance off New Zealand and significantly reduce levels of ecological damage and accidental killing.

"We are currently working with both industry and government to rectify all these issues," he said. "Our hope is that we will see great change and willingness by industry and, importantly, government to improve the situation dramatically."

Organic restaurant at the edge of Europe


The  Irish Times' DEIRDRE McQUILLAN stays at Inis Meain restaurant suites

NO MATTER HOW many times I fly to Inis Meáin I still get a thrill when the twin engines of Aer Arann's Britten-Norman Islander roar at full throttle as the aircraft leaves Connemara airport, in Inverin, for the hop to the island.

On this visit we took off in a dismal grey downpour, but on rounding the shore the clouds parted, the stony fields came into view and we landed softly on the runway as the sun broke through.

We were going to the opening of an exhibition of JM Synge's photographs at Inis Meáin Knitting Company's lovely shop and to stay a night at Inis Meáin Restaurant Suites, a short walk away.

Designed in keeping with the natural environment by the architect Shane de Blácam, a regular visitor to the island, the long, low-lying, cut-limestone building, bisected by a horizontal line of glass, seems to rise from the stone plateau on which it is constructed. It's an impressive sight.

Ruairí de Blácam, an islander and qualified chef, and his wife, Marie-Thérèse, who worked in the fashion industry, fulfilled their long-standing dream of opening a restaurant with rooms on Inis Meáin a year ago.

Their three very spacious suites are constructed and furnished to a high standard, with mesmerising panoramic views of the sea and mainland. Each one, with stuccoed lime walls and wooden floors, is simply but stylishly furnished with a comfortable double bed dressed in white cotton and grey alpaca throws.


Colours reflect the landscape. A wooden bench and a sofa upholstered in grey tweed, with alpaca cushions in shades of grey, provide seating, although you would need a higher chair to use the long wooden window shelf as a desk. The only decorations are black-and-white photographs of the island and vases of wild flowers.

A five-compartment sideboard contains the following: a fridge with chocolate, carrageen, water, wine, champagne, spirits, anchovies, tuna, salami, cheese, butter, marmalade and jam; a kettle, tea, coffee and a mini microwave; cups, saucers, plates, glasses and cutlery; hot-water bottles, a hairdryer, a basket, a sewing kit and deodorants; and Scrabble, a chess set and playing cards.

The adjoining small bathroom has polished granite walls, a shower, a basin and a heated towel rail.

Outside, two mountain bikes are stored on a small self-contained patio with outdoor seating, along with fishing rods complete with tackle.

Maps and books of interest, such as those of Tim Robinson on the Aran Islands, Sean Scully and even the latest book on Synge, edited by Nicholas Grene, are also provided, along with a thoughtful guest information booklet listing 10 things you should do on Inis Meáin. Who'd want a television with all that and such a view outside?

The small but well-chosen restaurant menu majors on seafood caught by island fishermen, including crab, skate and lobster, and local vegetables.

Starters, such as goat's cheese salad with walnuts and sherry vinaigrette, are served with home-made brown bread; main courses include roast skate with French beans and hazelnuts, with new potatoes. Starters cost €5.50-€12.50, main courses cost €17-€27 and desserts cost €7.

Wine is about €5.50 a glass; the list offered seven reds and seven whites, all French, from €22 to €48 and €60 a bottle.

Breakfast is not served in the restaurant but delivered on a tray to the suites. Ours was an Irish and international selection. It had Karmine Irish apple juice, toasted hazelnut muesli, pineapple and strawberry salad, Gubbeen cheese, saucisson, coppa (Italian sausage), scones and "island boiled eggs".

The de Blácams have a burgeoning vegetable garden below the restaurant and a wooden palais des poulets housing 10 Rhode Island Reds that provide the breakfast eggs. Other plans in store for this sheltered field will generate even more produce for the table.

I've stayed in various bed and breakfasts on Inis Meáin over the years, all of them friendly, welcoming places, but the suites provide a new level of luxury and privacy that makes them extra special for an island getaway.

We got up early on Sunday, before breakfast, and went for a long cycle along the island's labyrinthine lanes, passing wild-flower meadows, fields of potatoes and the occasional local. In others, sheep or cows with calves gazed out in contentment into the distance, just like ourselves.

Where Inis Meáin Restaurant Suites, Inis Meáin, Aran Islands, Co Galway, 086-8266026,

What Self-contained suites adjoining a restaurant.

Suites Three.

Rates The nightly rate is €125 per person, based on two people sharing a suite. The minimum stay is two nights. There is a single supplement of €62. The rate includes breakfast delivered to the suite.

Restaurant Open seasonally for dinner, serving local food.

Ideal for Couples wanting a quiet weekend retreat with good food.

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times

Life on Inis Meáin!

A TV Documentary about Inis Meáin broadcasts tonight Tuesday 11th Nov on TG4 at 8.30pm
Made by a friend of ours on the island, a beautifully shot short film about the life of Máirín Thomáis. Máirín is a local lady who is a world-famous knitter and one of the last known people to be able to make the traditional crios on a homemade hand loom. If you missed the documentary made about ourselves and aired in September and would like to see it, it is available to view at

- Inis Meáin Knitwear Store Christmas Shopping
Special openings on Saturday 22nd November and Saturday 6th of December with complimentary soup & brown bread supplied by Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites in store, when you spend over e100. Ideal christmas present offers like cashmere and baby alpaca scarves at 45e each, and hats and ties at 25e each with a complimentary third scarf, hat, or tie of your choice when you buy two.
Your itinerary for a shopping outing with a difference:
- Drive to Rossaveal to catch the 10.30am ferry, arrive to Inis Meáin at 11.30am, walk 15mins to the Knitwear Store
- Buy lots of lovely warm christmas presents and browse the knitwear ranges sold in the best stores in the world, but available in Inis Meáin at very special prices
- Enjoy our warming soup and brown bread and set off on a walk to explore the beautiful island sights
- Catch the 4.30pm ferry and arrive back to Rossaveal at 5.45pm. More travel info available on in the Contact > How to Get Here section
- Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites Christmas Gift Vouchers
Available in denominations of 50e and can be sent directly to your recipient in a beautiful package. Just email us with your request. Give those closest to you something to really look forward to in 2009!
- Restaurant of the Year Award from Hospitality Ireland Magazine 2008
Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites was delighted to win one of 3 Restaurant of the Year Awards from Hospitality Ireland at the Four Seasons in Dublin on the 30th of October. The other two award winners were Locks and The Residence, both in Dublin. Judges include food critics Tom Doorley, Ernie Whalley and Domini Kemp.
The next time we write will be in the New Year, so for when the time comes we wish you a very happy Christmas shared with family and friends and we hope to see you in Inis Meáin when we reopen the Restaurant & Suites on 1st May 2009!
Le gach dea-mheáin,
Ruairí & Marie-Therese de Blacam
Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites
A chairde,
Nóta beag le sibh a choimeád ar an eolas faoi saoil in Inis Meáin!
- Scannán Teilifíse ar Inis Meáin anocht, Máirt 11ú Samhain ar TG4 ag 8.30i.n.
Déanta ag cara linn, scannán álainn mar gheall ar saol Máirín Thomáis. Is cniotáilí an-cháiliúl í agus tá sí ar ceann dena daoine deireanacha atá in ann an crios traidisiúnta a dhéanamh le lámh. Má chaill tú an scannán a bhí déanta orainn a chraoladh i mí Meán Fómhair tá sé le fáil ag
- Siopadóireacht na Nollaig i Siopa Cniotáil Inis Meáin
Tá an siopa ag oscailt go speisialta ar Sathairn 22ú Samhain agus Sathairn 6ú Nollaig le anraith agus arán donn le fáil saor in aisce sa siopa nuair a chaitheann níos mó ná e100. Tá an-deis bronntanais nollaig a fháil le scairf cashmere agus baby alpaca ar e45 agus hataí agus carabhat ag e25. Agus nuair a cheannaíonn tú péire de aon cheann acu sin, faigheann tú do rogha an triú ceann saor in aisce!
Seo an sceideal is fearr a bheadh agat agus tú ag teacht don lá:
- Tiomán go Ros a Mhíl leis an bád ag 10.30r.n a fháil, scroichfidh tú Inis Meáin ag 11.30r.n. agus beidh siúlóid 15 nóim go dtí an siopa.
- Ceannaigh go leor de do bhronntanais Nollaig agus breathnaigh ar an bhfaisiún cniotáile is déanaí atá sna siopaí is fearr ar domhain ach atá ar fáil i Siopa Cniotáil Inis Meáin ar praghasanna an-speisialta
- Bain taitneamh as anraith agus arán donn agus téir ag siúl le breathnú ar áilleacht an oileáin
- Faigh an bád ag 4.30i.n. le bheith ar ais i Rossaveal ag 5.45i.n. Tuilleadh eolas ar chonas teacht go Inis Meáin ar sa roinn Teagmháil > Taisteal
- Dearbháin Bialann & Seomraí Só Inis Meáin
Níl le déanamh ach sonraí a chur chugainn ar rphost agus is féidir linn dearbhán i bpacáiste álainn a seoladh amach chughat nó díreach go dtí do chara. Beidh rud deas le tnúth leis i 2009 ag aon duine a gheobhfadh dearbhán mar seo!
- Duais Bialann is Fearr 2008 ón iris Hospitality Ireland Magazine 2008
Bhíomar an-sásta an duais seo a bhuacaint in éinntí le dhá bialann eile sa tír - Locks agus The Residence i Baile Átha Cliath san óstán Four Seasons i mBAC ar an 30ú Deireadh Fómhair. I measc na breithimh don duais seo tá na scríobhnóirí bia Tom Doorley, Ernie Whalley agus Domini Kemp.
Sin a bhfuil don t-am i láthair. Ní bheimid i dteagmháil arís go dtí an chéad bhlian eile mar sin bíodh Nollaig shona agat fhéin agus do chlann nuair a thiocfaidh an t-am sin, agus tá súil againn tú a fheiscint in Inis Meáin i 2009!

Where's your favourite Irish bed and breakfast?

Brendan Courtney
Brendan Courtney

If your memories of BBs feature nylon sheets and drab food, then it could be time for a rethink. Alanna Gallagher of The Irish Times asked half a dozen well-known bon vivants where they like to get away to and what makes the destination so special for them

Marian Keyes, Novelist

The writer loves Moy House, which sits above Cregg Beach in Co Clare, overlooking the wild Atlantic Ocean. The old summer home of landlord Sir Augustine Fitzgerald has been renovated sympathetically.

"It's small - there are only nine rooms - but classically restored. The decor throughout is very grown-up. The bathrooms are quite traditional, with big Victorian-style claw-foot baths and enormous Villeroy Boch sinks. The finish throughout is to a really high standard. The rooms are small, but each is different, and there's a lovely sitting room with squishy couches and an honesty bar.

"They do evening meals, but for residents only, which can leave you feeling a little sore if you're in Lahinch and dying to be let in. It's a great place to hole up for a winter weekend. The wind can be howling around the house, but you'll feel warm and cosy inside. It feels very romantic to be cosied up on the couch with the wind whistling around the building."

The house is architecturally fascinating, according to Keyes. "There's a quirky watchtower to explore, and in the dining room there's a wall of glass looking out to sea. Every detail is beautiful. It's the perfect escape."

• Moy House, Lahinch, Co Clare, 065-7082800, €112.50-€180 per person sharing

• Marian Keyes's latest novel, This Charming Man , is published by Michael Joseph

Robert Doggett, restaunteur

Robert Doggett, who has been maitre d' of the Trocadero, in Dublin, for more years than he cares to remember, is one of the most hospitable hosts in the capital. For him Kilgraney Country House Herb Garden, near Bagenalstown, Co Carlow, ticks all the hospitality boxes.

"I have many's the time hopped into the car and headed to Kilgraney House. It's a stunning place to stay, with a choice of six very unusual and unique bedrooms. Once settled in, a walk along the River Barrow really clears the head. Back at the house, stroll through the amazingly fragrant herb garden, which includes a medicinal herb courtyard and a medieval monastic herb garden."

The herb garden, says Doggett, is a perfect prelude to a massage: it leads to the aromatherapy massage rooms, which are in a restored apple store. "The de-stress mind massage is perfect after a hectic week at the restaurant. After a pleasant session I like to read a good book in the drawing room."

There are two dining options, says Doggett, but it is the breakfast that owners Martin Marley and Bryan Leech serve that is most memorable, particularly the orange raisin pancakes and baked eggs with spinach.

• Kilgraney House, near Bagenalstown, Co Carlow, 059-9775283, €65-€120pps

• Robert Doggett is maitre d of Trocadero (St Andrew Street, Dublin 2, 01-6775545,

Brendan Courtney, television presenter

Marlfield House, in Co Wexford, is not your everyday BB, but for a cheeky weekend away it's hard to beat, according to the television presenter.

"The rooms come with sumptuous bedding and Frette linen, deep-pile carpets and dramatic canopies over the beds. Some rooms also have open fires, an essential ingredient for winter romance," he says.

Marlfield House built its reputation on its food, which is modern Irish in style and features fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit, wild salmon, spring lamb, Bannow Bay oysters, Wexford mussels and beef.

"There is abundant use of rich butter and cream sauces, so I came home about a stone heavier than I had been."

When Courtney visited, Marlfield House was run by a mother-and-daughter combination of Mary and Margaret Bowe, but Mary has retired, and now the house is run by Margaret and her sister, Laura.

"I stayed there with my ex Les. We arrived in a dodgy white van, which we had to park on a hill and have the owners help us push-start, as the ignition was broken. It wouldn't have been their usual style of help request, but they obliged anyhow and got us on the road in no time."

• Marlfield House, Gorey, Co Wexford, 053-9421124, €105- €382.50pps

• Brendan Courtney presents Off the Rails on RTÉ1

Dermot O'Neill gardener

Gardener and good-food fan Dermot O'Neill loves Danny Minnie's in the wilds of the west Donegal Gaeltacht, in the village of Annagry.

"The BB has eight or nine rooms, each decorated in a country style, but every room retains its own character. It's small and the only place I know where you get your porridge served with Drambuie on it in the morning," says O'Neill. "The rooms also have homely touches, like magazines and books in them. Best of all is the food."

The restaurant is renowned in its part of the world. It's only open at the weekends in the winter. At €65 per person sharing it's great value for money and ideal if you want to block-book it for a family occasion, according to O'Neill.

Annagry is good base if you want to explore Glenveagh Castle, Errigal Mountain and the late Derek Hill's home and art collection.

Danny Minnie's is a good four-hour drive from Dublin. Weekenders might consider flying with Aer Arann. The guest house is a five-minute drive from the airport, and Danny Minnie's will collect you.

• Danny Minnie's, Annagry, Co Donegal, 074-9548201 or 074- 9548809, From €65pps

• Dermot O'Neill is a gardener and broadcaster

Johnnie Cooke

The chef says that Inis Meáin Restaurant Suites, on the middle of the three Aran Islands, off Galway, is a perfect spot for a romantic weekend break. Cooke heads west every September.

"Each suite offers uninterrupted views of the island. I love the fact that there are no televisions, allowing you to completely relax and get away from it all. The rooms are spacious, with a living area and outside sitting area. A breakfast tray is delivered to the room each morning, adding to the total relaxation."

The restaurant has similar panoramic views of the island and the bay, and its speciality is locally caught lobster and crab, served with produce grown on the island using seaweed as fertiliser, which gives the potatoes in particular a distinctive and floury taste, says Cooke.

"This is my idea of fantastic eating, spanking fresh seafood off the currachs, simply cooked and unadulterated."

Chef Ruairí de Blacam and his wife, Marie-Thérèse, who run the BB, are fantastic hosts and a mine of information on local culture and scenic walks.

"Whilst the island is well serviced by hopper planes and ferries from Galway, my real indulgence is catching a ride with a friend in his four-seater plane," says Cooke.

• Inis Meáin Restaurant Suites, Inis Meáin, Co Galway, 086- 8266026, €100pps

• Johnnie Cooke owns Cookes Event Catering (

Richard Corrigan, Chef

Chef Richard Corrigan likes a good breakfast. Hotels just can't get it right, he says.

"The result is too impersonal. Breakfast has to be cooked by the owner of the establishment. A bed and breakfast has to be more than about the bedroom."

Shelburne Lodge, in Kenmare, Co Kerry, is more than the sum of its parts, he says.

"The last time I stayed there the owner, Maura Foley, cooked me wild salmon, seared lightly and served with a lemon butter sauce for my breakfast. It was the finest start to the day I've ever had. The full Irish features high-quality bacon, beautiful sausages, fresh breads, traditional Irish cheeses and good leaf teas as well as fresh fish."

Maura Foley, one of the region's food heroes, has been cooking since 1961.

Her old stone house is set on the edge of the town, well back from the road in its own grounds. It has nine rooms, each with a mix of antiques and Irish paintings.

The gardens include a herb garden, and the location means you can walk into town for a pint. Kenmare has some terrific pubs. Crowley's is an old-school establishment with no organised sessions, but musicians tend to turn up and play.

• Shelburne Lodge, Cork Road, Kenmare, Co Kerry, 064-41013, €50-€80pps.

• Richard Corrigan recently opened Bentley's Oyster Bar Grill (22 St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, 01-6383939,

Want ideas?